Reader’s Guide – Day 14

Papa Francisco cuts a different figure, taking the bus with the cardinals back to the Vatican guesthouse after being elected pontiff Wednesday, so he could collect his belongings and pay his hotel bill, to set an example for other clergy; see the report by Catherine Harmon of the National Catholic Register. And his first homily, delivered in a Mass Thursday with the cardinals  in the Sistine Chapel, was extemporaneous and personal. Reuters quoted him as speaking in Italian and without notes: “We can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO and not a Church which is the bride of Christ.”

That he chose to be called Francis set a tone, but there was confusion for a while Wednesday over whether he meant to invoke Francis of Assissi or the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, until the Vatican press office issued a clarification.


The choice was not foreseen by many, even though he ran second to Benedict XVI in the conclave of 2005. The Italian bishops conference was so certain that Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, that they issued a press statement hailing the election of an Italian prelate, Reuters reported.

Experienced Vatican watchers knew the name but were surprised that the election happened so quickly. John Thavis, retired Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service wrote on his blog: “When we heard the name Bergoglio in the ‘Habemus Papam’ announcement, we all did a double-take. As I wrote here two days ago, I had heard Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's name increasingly mentioned by some well-informed people, so he was high on my short list. But his election on the second day of the conclave surprised me. It meant he was not a compromise candidate the cardinals turned to after voting stalled on front-runners, but the first choice of many going into the conclave.”

Many see it as the cardinals hoping for a different emphasis in this papacy, away from the highly theological interests of the last two pontiffs. An analysis in The New York Times quoted the Italian writer Alberto Melloni: “The reign of the doctors is over, and this is the kingdom of pastors, a move away from a theologian pope. The fact is that he [Cardinal Bergoglio] was a minority candidate in the 2005 election, and it was like saying, ‘Last time we went wrong, so let’s pick it up before it’s too late.’ ”

The closest Vatican watchers thought the reform candidate in the conclave was Scola of Milan and the curial choice was Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, the Times wrote. “Where Francis fits on that spectrum is unclear.”

Michael Brendan Dougherty, who describes himself as a liturgical traditionalist (yes, the Tridentine Mass), expressed severe doubt about the choice in a blog for the online magazine Slate: “Besides his lack of knowledge of the ins and outs of the Vatican, there is almost no evidence of him taking a tough line with anyone in his own diocese. Are we to believe that Buenos Aires has been spared the moral rot and corruption found almost everywhere else in the Catholic clergy? Or, more likely, do we have another Cardinal who looked the other way, and studiously avoided confrontation with the ‘filth’ in the church, no matter the danger to children or to the cause of the church?  Presumption and detraction are sins, but Catholics should gird themselves; the sudden spotlight on his reign may reveal scandal and negligence.”

For Daugherty, the choice was the fruit of an alliance of curialists and Latin American bishops, and the results mean that the changes Benedict was seeking will not be seen anytime soon, warning that “an older pope who does not know which curial offices and officers need the ax, will be even easier to ignore than Benedict.”

One of the most interesting profiles available in the last 24 hours was posted by Britain’s Catholic Herald, an article it first printed after the conclave of 2005. Written by José Mariá Poirier, then editor of the Argentinian Catholic magazine Criterio, it said that many, even then, thought Cardinal Bergoglio would be the next pope. The Argentine was seen by some in the earlier conclave as the only hope to stop the election of the prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine. It pointed out that, while previously little known in Rome, he gained prominence when he took over as relator, summarizer, in the bishops synod of 2001, when Cardinal Edward Egan had to return to New York City after the 9/11 attacks. The secular clergy and many laypeople love their archbishop, Poirier related. “What is certain is that he is not loved by most of his Jesuit companions. They remember him as their provincial during the violence of the 1970s, when the army came to power amid a breakdown in the political system after the death of General Peron. A part of the Church in Argentina was involved in the theology of liberation and opposed the military government. Bergoglio was not. ‘After a war,’ he was heard to say, ‘you have to act firmly.’

“He exercised his authority as provincial with an iron fist, calmly demanding strict obedience and clamping down on critical voices,” Poirier wrote. “Many Jesuits complained that he considered himself the sole interpreter of St Ignatius of Loyola, and to this day speak of him warily.”

WikiLeaks, which continues to distribute US diplomatic and military documents that touch on controversial matter, found among them an American assessment of cardinals prior to the 2005 conclave, among them Cardinal Bergoglio. This is the conclusion of that brief section: “Bergoglio is said to prefer life in the local Church as opposed to a bureaucratic existence in Rome's ecclesiastical structures, but at the same time he has been willing to serve on the Vatican's various supervisory committees. This could indicate an ability to bridge the curia/local church divide that splits the College of Cardinal Electors, making him a good compromise candidate.”

Another American assessment comes from E.J. Dionne, the distinguished columnist for the Washington Post, who says of Francis in an opinion piece for the Post: “He is a doctrinal conservative who battled gay marriage in Argentina and fellow Jesuits who were more liberal. But he also rebuked priests who denied baptism to children born out of wedlock and has spoken out strongly for social justice. He is the first pope to take the name of the saint known for his devotion to humility and to the poor. He is likely to weigh in often on behalf of the world’s poorest regions.”

Dionne goes on to quote then Cardinal Bergoglio, speaking to the Latin American bishops conference in 2007: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” See John Allen’s report of that meeting for the National Catholic Reporter.

Odds and ends: For a picture of religious life in Argentina, see a brief report by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. And Foreign Policy has a roundupof Argentine reaction to the election of Francis.

I will post again tomorrow with some final thoughts on press coverage of the conclave and the picture emerging of the new pontiff.

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